...an excerpt from...
The End of the Road
by John Barth
"In life," he said, "there are no essentially major or minor characters. To that extent, all fiction and biography, and most historiography, are a lie. Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story. Hamlet could be told from Polonius's point of view and called The Tragedy of Polonius, Lord Chamberlain of Denmark. He didn't think he was a minor character in anything, I daresay. Or suppose you're an usher in a wedding. From the groom's viewpoint he's the major character; the other's play support parts, even the bride. From your viewpoint, though, the wedding is a minor episode in the very interesting history of your life, and the bride and groom both are minor figures. What you've done is choose to play the part of a minor character: it can be pleasant for you to pretend to be less important than you know you are, as Odysseus does when he disguises as a swineherd. And every member of the congregation at the wedding sees himself as the major character, condescending to witness the spectacle. So in this sense fiction isn't a lie at all, but a true representation of the distortion that everyone makes of life.
"Now, not only are we the heroes of our own life stories--we're the ones who conceive of the story, and give other people the essences of minor characters. But since no man's life story as a rule is ever one story with a coherent plot, we're always reconceiving just the sort of hero we are, and consequently just the sort of minor roles that other people are supposed to play. This is generally true. If any man displays almost the same character day in and day out, all day long, it's either because he has no imagination, like an actor who can play only one role, or because he has an imagination so comprehensive that he sees each particular situation of his life as an episode in some grand over-all plot, and can so distort the situations that the same type of hero can deal with them all. But this is most unusual.
"This kind of role-assigning is myth-making, and when it's done consciously or unconsciously for the purpose of aggrandizing or protecting your ego--and it's probably done for this purpose all the time--it becomes Mythotherapy. Here's the point: an immobility such as you experienced that time in Penn Station is possible only to a person who for some reason or other has ceased to participate in Mythotherapy. At that time on the bench you were neither a major nor a minor character: you were no character at all. It's because this happened once that it's necessary for me to explain to you something that comes quite naturally to everyone else. It's like teaching a paralytic how to walk again.
"Now many crises in people's lives occur because the hero role that they've assumed for one situation or set of situations no longer applies to some new situation that comes up, or--the same thing in effect--because they haven't the imagination to distort the new situation to fit their old role. This happens to parents, for instance, when their children grow older, and to the lovers when one of them begins to dislike the other. If the new situation is too overpowering to ignore, and they can't find a mask to meet it with, they may become schizophrenic--a last-resort mask--or simply shattered. All questions of integrity involve this consideration, because a man's integrity consists in being faithful to the script he has written for himself.
"I've said you're too unstable to play any one part all the time--you're also too unimaginative--so for you these crises had better be met by changing scripts as often as necessary. This should come naturally to you; the important thing for you is to realize what your'e doing so you won't get caught without a script, or with the wrong script in a given situation. You did quite well, for example, for a beginner, to walk in here so confidently and almost arrogantly a while ago, and assign me the role of a quack. But you must be able to change masks at once if by some means or other I'm able to make the one you walked in with untenable. Perhaps--I'm just suggesting an offhand possibility--you could change to thinking of me as The Sagacious Old Mentor, a kind of Machiavellian Nestor, say, and yourself as The Ingenuous But Promising Young Protege, a young Alexander, who someday will put all these teachings into practice and far outshine the master. Do you get the idea? Or--this is repugnant, but it could be used as a last resort--The Silently Indignant Young Man, who tolerates the ravings of a Senile Crank but who will leave this house unsullied by them. I call this repugnant because if you ever used it you'd cut yourself off from much that you haven't learned yet.
"It's extremely important that you learn to assume these masks wholeheartedly. Don't think there's anything behind them: ego means I, and I means ego, and the ego by definition is a mask. Where there's no ego--this is you on the bench--there's no I. If you sometimes have the feeling that your mask is insincere--impossible word!--it's only because one of your masks is incompatible with another. You mustn't put on two at a time. There's a source of conflict, and conflict between masks, like absence of masks, is a source of immobility. The more sharply you can dramatize your situation, and define your own role and everybody else's role, the safer you'll be. It doesn't matter in Mythotherapy for paralytics whether your role is major or minor, as long as it's clearly conceived, but in the nature of things it'll normally always be major. Now say something."
I could not.
"Say something!" the Doctor ordered. "Move! Take a role!"